By now, everyone’s aware that Donald Trump wandered off message Tuesday night and told an audience in Raleigh, N.C., that Saddam Hussein, for all his sins, “killed terrorists.”
“He did that so good,” the presumed GOP presidential nominee said. “They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. It was over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism. You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq. It’s like Harvard, OK? So sad.”
There were spasms of outrage, from Hillary Clinton’s campaign (“Donald Trump’s praise for brutal strongmen seemingly knows no bounds”) to the perpetually disappointed-to-hear-this House Speaker Paul Ryan (Hussein “was one of the 20th century’s most evil people”). And in outrage mode, it was easy to ignore something Clinton spokesman Jake Sullivan said in his reaction. Trump didn’t just praise Hussein. He “yet again lauded” him. Trump had used this language many, many times, with plenty of cameras pointed at him.
It all seemed curious to David Martosko, the Daily Mail reporter who has covered Trump more closely than almost anyone in this campaign year:
“Remarkable part about the Saddam thing isn’t what Trump said. He’s said it before. It’s how media jumped on this when Hillary needed it,” Martosko tweeted.
Defining “the media” so broadly rarely makes sense. It made sense Tuesday night. Trump’s insistence that Hussein should have remained in power to “kill terrorists” is actually one of his most consistent lines. It clashes completely with the Washington consensus but taps into voter anger at how the Iraq war, sold as a quick-and-easy crusade against evil, destabilized the Middle East and allowed groups such as the Islamic State to form and grow.
Trump began saying this at his campaign rallies last summer. (As Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski has reported, there is no record of him saying it before the 2003 invasion.) Reporters followed up; Trump repeated himself. In an October 2015 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, long before votes were cast, Trump reiterated his view that the world was better off with Hussein in power — and using brutal peacekeeping tactics.
“Iraq used to be: No terrorism,” Trump said. “He would kill the terrorists immediately. Now it’s Harvard for terrorism.”
Trump said this in many of the rallies that cable news played live throughout that season. If anyone missed it, he repeated it in an interview with CBS News’ John Dickerson, as part of the run-up to South Carolina’s primary debate.
Trump’s victory in that state — and the humiliating, campaign-ending defeat of Jeb Bush — happened with the “Saddam killed terrorists” argument pretty well hashed out. Pundits who expected voters to rediscover their ardor for the Bush family — pundits including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C. — instead watched some of the state’s most veteran-heavy communities break for Trump.
So what was different Tuesday night? Clinton’s campaign said it was different. In Politico, we learn that Trump’s Hussein praise “finally caught up with him” because “Hillary Clinton’s campaign tore into his latest comments.” NBC News notes that Trump said this at a rally with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., which could lead to a clash and some awkward questions; otherwise, the only new thing is that “Hillary Clinton’s campaign seized the opportunity to once more paint Trump as unfit for office.”
And so on. The story is not that Trump argued that the U.S. would be better off if a dictator had been allowed to stay in power in Iraq; the story is that things are different now, because the presumptive Democratic nominee is whacking him for saying it.
The timing of the Clinton campaign’s attack was telling, for two reasons. First, and most obviously, whaling on Trump gave the campaign a chance to pivot on a day when the director of the FBI held an unusual and damaging news conference saying that the Democratic candidate, whom most voters consider untrustworthy, had behaved recklessly with classified e-mail. The media went along with this by noting the irony, and remarking that Trump stepped on what could have been a good news cycle.
Second, Trump said all of this just hours before the long-awaited release of findings from an inquiry into the United Kingdom’s role in invading Iraq. The Chilcot Report has found more of what war and national security reporters found after 2003 — that George W. Bush and Tony Blair were raring to invade Iraq before a real case was made for doing so. The report is particularly damning for Blair, who just six years after leaving office is a pariah, his own Labour Party led by a member of its far left who had opposed all of Blair’s “modernizing” policies and opposed the war.
The point is that Trump has been saying, for quite some time, that the U.S. should not have gone to war in Iraq, and that it should side with dictators as long as they “kill terrorists.” The Republican primary electorate endorsed that view. Clinton, as a senator and then as secretary of state, took another view, and backed the use of American power to remove both Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. There’s video of Clinton gleefully saying “We came, we saw, he died” upon learning that Gaddafi had been torn apart by his own people. This has never been treated like a gaffe; but Trump’s “Saddam killed terrorists” riff suddenly is.
By consistently covering Trump’s argument over time, and by following up on it, media outlets did their job to inform voters. That was why Tuesday night’s collective Captain Renault moment was so strange, and so demonstrative of why many media consumers are skeptical of what they’re hearing. Instead of a debate on the facts — should Hussein have been removed? Did he “kill terrorists,” in a contradiction of what Americans were told before the war? — there was manufactured outrage, straight from a rival campaign.